The Return of the Native

If Spanish Navidad ‘Christmas’ came from natividad ‘birth,’ and natividad ultimately from Latin natus ‘born,’ there was an intervening step: from natus Latin created the adjective nativus, which meant ‘that has arisen from or by birth.’ We’ve carried that adjective over, of course, as nativo/native. In English that has given birth to the noun nativism, which the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defined as ‘the disposition to favor the native inhabitants of a country, in preference to immigrants from foreign countries.’ The word, whose Spanish equivalent is nativismo, also has a philosophical definition: ‘the doctrine of innate* ideas, or that the mind possesses forms of thought independent of sensation.’ The corresponding adjective is nativista/nativist.

In French, Latin nativus evolved to naïf, which English has borrowed as a doublet alongside native. Here’s how The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia defined naïf: ‘Ingenuous; artless; natural**: the masculine form, naïve being the corresponding feminine, but used also, in English, without regard to gender….’ In that dictionary’s separate entry for naïve we find: ‘Simple; unsophisticated; ingenuous; artless.’ The usage example the dictionary gave came from Frederick Marryatt’s strangely named 1837 novel Snarleyyow, or the Dog Fiend: “Little Lilly . . . would listen to his conversation and remarks, which were almost as naïve and unsophisticated as her own.”


* Innate is another related word, whose Spanish equivalent innato is one of the relatively rare Spanish words with -nn- in it; historically, -nn- in many Latin words became ñ in Spanish, e.g. annus —> año.

** Natural is yet another related word.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Dec 28, 2014 @ 14:35:39

    There’s also the word “endemic” from C18 from New Latin endēmicus, from Greek ενδήμος, endēmos, “native.” Endēmos is formed of en, “in,” and dēmos, “the people.” The term “endemic” began to be used here because of the confusion “native” provoked, not in me but in other people. Since P.R. is so full of tropical Asian plants and trees, only the term “endemic” could specify which species were exotic or not. So “endemic” is what is used here to denote a species which originated from the island. Whereas some people still think “native to” simply means “it lives there”, but “originated” apparently requires the “endemism” specification.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 28, 2014 @ 16:14:52

      You’re right that the terms native and endemic are used in various ways and can therefore be confusing. I didn’t bring up the word endemic in this article because it’s not etymologically related to native.


  2. Maria F.
    Dec 28, 2014 @ 14:39:31

    Although in the “endemism” article it describes “a native species”, such as a native plant, as one that is considered to have been endemic for a relatively long period of time.


  3. shoreacres
    Dec 29, 2014 @ 14:02:54

    On my way to celebrate the Nativity with family members who’d gathered in San Antonio, I crossed both the East and West Navidad rivers on I-10. I’d never noticed the signs, but there they were.

    The Grand Hyatt and the River Walk were filled with people who appeared not to be native to this country, and a few people who might have been native, but who also seemed slightly unnatural. The fellow who was wearing an Elf suit and a cowboy hat, while walking a miniature pig and yelling, “How-DEE!” at everyone he passed, fell into that category.

    The day after Christmas, when I stopped at the Espiritu Santo mission on my way to Port O’Connor, I was amazed to find their Christmas tree: both native and natural. I liked it much better than the River Walk glitz.

    I enjoyed the bit of fun you had here, too — starting your post by talking about birth, but giving it Thomas Hardy’s title for a story that ends with death. Nicely done!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 29, 2014 @ 16:35:06

      When out-of-towners visit Austin, I usually end up getting dragged to downtown San Antonio, especially the Alamo and the River Walk. Left to my own devices, I try to avoid touristy places because they almost always lose any authenticity they once had. Witness the guy you describe seeing there with the elf suit and cowboy hat walking a miniature pig and yelling “How-DEE!” I have to wonder what foreigner visitors on the River Walk thought about him.

      I haven’t read a lot by Thomas Hardy, but in college I learned that he was a poet as well as a novelist. I still have the poetry anthology from which I found out that he was a poet, and it includes a poem that’s appropriate for the season of the Nativity:


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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